Story Structure in Short Stories

[This article initially appeared (in slightly different form) in Speculations February, 2002 (issue 45), edited by Susan Fry.  My Clarion page has links to a few other short essays on Clarion and writing as well.]

There are a lot of models for story structure.  They’re easy to apply to novels and feature-length films, but I found them hard to apply to short stories.

In fact, my early efforts to use formal models for story structure were so unsatisfactory, I seriously considered abandoning them as a tool for plotting short stories.  I might have done so, except that the instructors teaching them were really smart people who knew I was working on short stories.

I believed that they were useful, but I wasn’t able to use them.

I attended Clarion this year.  One thing I learned was a useful way to relate the formal models for story structure to the structure of a short story.

Complete story structures

The models I’m talking about are sometimes described as the structure of a “complete” story.  In a real sense, this sort of structure is what makes a story a story, and not just an incident or a series of related scenes.  In fact, the case can be made human brains are hardwired to appreciate stories that are structured as complete stories.  Whether that’s true or not, since most stories are structured like this, people learn to view them as stories.

One good model for story structure (taught to me by Bruce Holland Rogers) is Algis Budrys’s seven point story structure.  It has:

  1. a character,
  2. in a situation,
  3. with a problem,
  4. who tries repeatedly to solve his problem,
  5. but repeatedly fails, (usually making the problem worse),
  6. then, at the climax of the story, makes a final attempt (which might either succeed or fail, depending on the kind of story it is), after which
  7. the result is “validated” in a way that makes it clear that what we saw was, in fact, the final result.

Another good one (taught to me by Steven Barnes) is Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey:

  1. The hero is confronted with a challenge,
  2. rejects it,
  3. but then is forced (or allowed) to accept it.
  4. He travels on the road of trials,
  5. gathering powers and allies, and
  6. confronts evil—only to be defeated.
  7. This leads to a dark night of the soul, after which
  8. the hero makes a leap of faith that allows him to
  9. confront evil again and be victorious.
  10. Finally, the student becomes the teacher.

For a novel or a movie, it can work great to tell a full-blown complete story, with multiple unsuccessful attempts to solve the problem or many steps along the road of trials.  But in a short story it’s really hard to get everything in.

After I first learned these story structures, I wrote several stories making a conscious effort to get the whole Hero’s Journey (or whole try-fail, try-fail, try-fail structure) in.  I managed it (usually in six to eight thousand words), but the stories were fair at best.  (While I was at Clarion, a couple of people workshopped stories with the whole Hero’s Journey in just a couple thousand words.  It’s possible, but there’s not much room for anything else.)

I started looking at published stories in magazines, focusing on the stories that I really liked.  Virtually none of them cranked through a whole Hero’s Journey or a whole “try-fail” story structure.  Especially when I looked at award-winning stories, I just didn’t see many stories that followed those structures.

When I went to Clarion this year, I had two questions at the top of my list of things I wanted to learn:

  1. What is the structure of a successful short story?
  2. What is the relationship between that sort of story structure and “complete” story structures like the Hero’s Journey?

I learned those two things out of order, so I’m going to talk about them out of order here.  That actually works out well, because the answer to the second question implies the answer to the first question in a useful way.

Short Stories

Steven Barnes showed us in class that pretty much every plotted story can be analyzed according to the Hero’s Journey.  But, he explained, short stories tend to have parts of the structure pared down: Not all steps are shown in full-blown scenes.


It is important that the steps “take place” in the context of the story—that’s what makes it a story.  But it isn’t necessary to show each step.  It is enough simply to mention them.  In fact, it can be enough simply to imply them.

Once I understood that, it became possible to match the structure of short stories to the models for story structure.

For example, lots of stories can be thought of as the first few steps on the Hero’s Journey:  a challenge, a rejection of the challenge, and then an acceptance of the challenge.  The acceptance of the challenge is the climax of the story.  The “validation” segment of the story should imply the rest of the Hero’s Journey.  The reader should end the story knowing that there will be a road of trials, that evil will be confronted, and so on.

Lots of other stories can be thought of as just the dark night of the soul and the leap of faith.  The early steps along the hero’s journey can be filled in with flashbacks or simply implied by the circumstances of the characters as the story begins.  However it happens, the reader needs to learn that the hero accepted the challenge, confronted evil, and was defeated.  The story ends with the reader knowing that the hero will face evil again and this time be victorious.

I’m not quite sure why this was such a revelation to me.  But, once I learned to see things this way, it suddenly became much easier to plot my own stories.  It also became easier to explain plotting issues when critiquing other people’s stories.

It was less important to me to learn the answer to my first question, about the structure of a successful short story, once I understood how those structures relate to “complete” stories:  I could now build up my own successful structures.  But, as it happened, Geoffrey A. Landis had a pretty good description of the essential core of a short story.  A story needs to:

  1. Require the character to make a choice,
  2. show that choice by actions, and
  3. those actions must have consequences.

That’s bare-bones enough that you really can’t leave any of those elements out. It isn’t good enough for the character to make a choice that isn’t required by the story.  It isn’t good enough to have the character make a choice that is entirely in his head with no resulting actions.  It isn’t good enough for the character to make a choice where the result is that everything is the same as it would have been anyway.

So far I’ve found that I’m thinking about new stories using Geoff’s model, structuring the story around the decision.  But Steve’s idea, that you can merely imply steps along the Hero’s Journey, was a really big, really new idea for me.  It changed the way I thought about story structure.





Here are a few other articles about writing and attending Clarion:

  • How I learned at Clarion” is a small piece that talks not about what I learned but about how I learned it–and compares what I expected would be the most useful parts of the experience to what actually turned out to teach me the most.
  • Clarion Expenses” is a brief description of what Clarion cost me, offered in the hopes that it’ll help other people trying to figure out whether they can afford to go.
  • Where you won’t get critiques and how not to use them” is a short rant that I dashed off when I should have been writing fiction but was annoyed over some complaints about rejection letters.
  • T-shirt quotes (runners-up)” is a list of the candidates for quotes to go on the back of our class t-shirt that didn’t win. (Find one of us at a con or something to see the winning quotes.)